Orleman does not label herself a feminist artist and prefers instead to discuss her work as portraying a “feminine world view.” She attributes this designation to her lack of direct engagement in feminist politics. However, her approach resembles that of many selfproclaimed first-generation feminists who strived to reclaim a universal iconography of the feminine based on goddess worship by ancient cultures, as well as notions of the collective female unconscious. Orleman’s feminine icons include natural symbols referring to fertility, sexuality, plant and animal life, and the cycles of life and the cosmos. These symbols are closely associated with her creative contributions as a woman painter and avid gardener. As an oil painter of large-scale images, Orleman engages in a medium that, in the modernist tradition of art, has been dominated by men. In addition to removing herself from the role of model or muse for a male counterpart, Orleman directly locates herself in her paintings as the artist, so there is no question in the viewer’s mind whose vision is being portrayed.


Elliott, her husband, plays a loving and supporting role in her paintings and is depicted as a balancing force to her creative energy. Unlike Orleman, who shifts from her everyday personae to a goddess and back again, Elliott stays grounded in the present reality clad in his jeans and trademark Pendleton vest. In Dragon’s Egg(2006), Elliott occupies the lefthand side of the canvas just opposite of Orleman and extends a glowing sun-like orb in her direction, as if presenting a gift. The concept of harmonious balance between female and male energy is emphasized by Orleman’s use of the Chinese yin-yang symbol. For Orleman, this reference to Asian thought is not culturally specific but indicative of a more universal dualistic philosophy. In a Jungian context such imagery could also represent Orleman having come to terms with her inner animus, the masculine part of her female personality. This is a struggle that Orleman documented in her Telling Secrets book where the male qualities that most frequently emerged in her work were cruelty, unpredictability, and violence
 

The title piece for the exhibition, Beneath the Canopy of Heaven, depicts a veritable garden paradise that Orleman inhabits in numerous mortal and mythical guises. As the characters unfold across the long canvas, collecting or repelling rain, fire, and stars with their umbrellas, or simply enjoying a nice day out, the landscape adopts the timeless feel of a beloved place visited over and over again. This joyful, expansive setting differs greatly from Orleman’s past work where figures are tightly contained within their surroundings. In her earlier works the viewer feels either the psychological tension of domestic settings from Orleman’s childhood that seethe with impending violence, or the physical tension created when large figures appear to push against the boundaries of the canvas. Orleman’s recent images open up new possibilities where the unconscious can be viewed not just as a repository for one’s individual or collectively repressed past experiences, but as a landscape beyond the realm of ordinary experience full of promise for the future.

 

 

 

Heather Horn is the Director for Central Washington University’s Sarah Spurgeon Gallery and a lecturer in the Department of Art at Central Washington University. Heather received her master’s degree in art history and museum studies from Tufts University in 1999.

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